Teaching technology: we need a digital revolution in the classroom
The government, in rewriting the schools syllabus, has a chance to make ours a nation truly in tune with the 21st century
Editoria, The Observer, Saturday 31 March 2012
There’s an old saying in business: if you don’t know who the sucker in a room is, it’s probably you. A similar adage can be applied to technology: if you don’t know how to control the systems you’re using, these systems are probably controlling you. As John Naughton argues in his special report for this week’s New Review, Britain is in danger of producing a generation of technological suckers: people who know how to word process a letter, buy apps for their iPhones and to search in Google, but have no understanding of the inner workings of these services.
This is, above all, an issue of education and training. For more than a decade, the teaching of information technology in schools has focused on using software rather than understanding systems; and on treating computers more like magical boxes than tools to be programmed and critiqued. With the government’s recent decision to throw away this old syllabus and replace it with something better fit for 21st-century purpose, we have an opportunity to rectify a dangerous imbalance and set a new standard. It’s an opportunity we can ill afford to miss – and that touches on some of the most fundamental questions surrounding what role computer technologies can, and should, play in 21st-century life.
Understanding modern computing means far more than typing at a desktop machine or picking up mail on a smartphone. Whether we’re meeting friends, reading books, checking our bank balances or going shopping, computer systems increasingly mediate every aspect of our lives – and shape the ways in which we both see and are seen by the world. Opting out is no longer a serious option, while ignorance risks simply handing over control to those, from corporations to fellow citizens, who may not have our best interests at heart.
Digital technologies are becoming an unprecedented force economically as well as socially. According to a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group, the UK economy already owes more to the internet than that of any other industrialised nation: a contribution of more than 8%, set to rise to above 12% by 2016. Creatively, we have long been at the cutting edge of online innovation – not least in the form of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web itself. Yet in terms of both education and achievement, Britain is increasingly trailing in the wake not only of America and Japan, but of nations from China and Korea to Brazil and India, where tremendous resources are being poured into digital skills.
Keeping up is one of the most vital economic issues this country faces. Manufacturing will never return in bulk to Britain. Financial services are a double-edged sword. It’s information technological expertise that offers perhaps the best safeguard of our future as an economy – and that offers citizens skills fit for a globalised century.
This isn’t just a pipe dream, either. London’s “Silicon Roundabout” is pulling in some of the world’s biggest tech hitters, while homegrown names such as Mind Candy continue to make British digital innovation a global presence. From Bath and Brighton to Cambridge and Newcastle, regional tech hubs are thriving relative to other sectors in the recession. Far more, however, still needs to be done.
A new syllabus truly fit for 21st-century purpose won’t necessarily look like education of old – something the government has acknowledged in the openness of its consultation process, and talk of “wiki-style” content. But good intentions alone don’t constitute policy, and there’s as yet no robust intellectual or organisational framework for what precisely the future of information technology teaching should constitute.
Paradoxically, there’s a particular hazard here in cleaving too closely to current corporate needs, for the skills required to serve the market leaders of the present are not the same as those needed to build the market leaders of the future. Training a workforce fit to tread the corridors of Facebook and Google is all very well. The ultimate test, though, will be whether we can give the next generation the tools and understanding with which they’ll build the Googles and Facebooks of the future.
Achieving this means embracing the unique properties of an interactive medium within classrooms: software systems that can precisely measure and personalise pupils’ progress, and that encourage both collaboration and competition; shared ownership of progress and objectives between teachers and pupils, with course materials themselves available for all to access – and debate – online.
Building a convincing 21st-century approach also means not being afraid to learn lessons from other fields: incorporating and building upon social media services rather than excluding them, and bridging the divide between the perceived fun and relevance of leisure technologies and so-called “educational” tools. Recent initiatives such as the website Codecademy – with free interactive coding lessons online – have started to show the way, but little as yet has been done within formal education. It’s not all about newness, though. The faster a field moves, the more vital a strong grasp of first principles becomes.
As John Naughton argues, this makes a proper intellectual grasp of computing fundamentals – from algorithms and heuristics to coding and computational problem-solving – especially important. Such terms may sound abstracted, but they are principles with practical implications across almost every walk of life. Digital technologies offer increasingly the foundations for building – in areas as diverse as scientific research and musical, visual and even literary creation. Modern film-makers, performers and artists have just as urgent a need to understand the systems they’re using as accountants or administrators.
Similarly, as phenomena from WikiLeaks to the Arab Spring have shown, digital technologies are also the medium through which new political and social forces are making themselves felt. From political engagement and activism to shifting notions of civic participation, networked technologies are the vehicle for an increasing proportion of public life. Better education about the nature of digital tools, here, is more than an economic or even a political necessity: it is a basic social good.
Ultimately, as anyone who has worked in education knows, fine intentions count for little without the human resources to back them. In this sense, bringing technological innovation and best practice to the classroom is much like the art of building a successful syllabus: the result should set good teachers free to teach, and enable the best possible use to be made of their time and attention.
This is where the government has most to prove. All the goodwill and gadgets in the world can’t inspire a class to learn if the person running the lesson doesn’t know – or doesn’t care – what they’re talking about. Getting this right will require considerable resources, vision, rigour, and the acknowledgement that the most important factors in securing our digital future remain all too human.